Bemidbar & Naso: Why Cover the Altar?

Moses assembles the tent-sanctuary for God at Mount Sinai at the end of the book of Exodus. At the beginning of the book of Numbers, the people prepare to leave Mount Sinai and head to Canaan—with their portable tent-sanctuary, where God is present. So God gives instructions for dismantling, covering, and carrying all the pieces of the sanctuary in the first two Torah portions of the book of Numbers: last week’s portion, Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20), and this week’s portion, Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89).

Kohatites carry the ark, detail from “Israel Enters the Land of Promise” Bible card, Providence Lithograph Co,, c. 1907

The priests must hide the holy objects inside the tent-sanctuary from view before the tent can be dismantled. Aaron and his two surviving sons must take down the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the front chamber. They must cover the ark with the curtain, then add two more coverings. They also spread three coverings over the gold bread table, two over the gold lampstand, and two over the gold incense altar. The Levites are not allowed to touch, or even look at, these most sacred objects until they have been covered. Only they can they pick up the objects by their carrying poles and transport them to the next campsite.

The three priests must also cover the copper altar outside the tent.

And they must clean fatty ashes off the mizbeiach, and they must spread a cloth of red-violet wool over it. And they must place upon [the cloth] all the utensils with which they serve at it: the cinder pails, the meat-forks and the scrapers, and the sprinkling basins, all the utensils of the mizbeiach. And they must spread out over them a cover of tachash skin, and they must place its carrying poles. (Numbers 4:13-14)

mizbeiach (מִזְבֵּחַ) = altar for offerings. (From the root verb zavach, זָבַח = slaughter livestock, make a slaughter offering. Altars were built of stone in Genesis and the first part of Exodus. Then God asked the Israelites to make a copper altar to stand in front of the new tent-sanctuary.)

tachash (תַחַשׁ) = an animal that has not been conclusively identified. Its skin must be fairly waterproof, since it is used as the top layer of the tent-sanctuary roof as well as one of the coverings of all the sacred objects the Levites carry when the Israelites are traveling.

Levites carry the altar

The second Torah portion in Numbers, Naso, opens with a census of the Levite clan of Gershon, then assigns its men aged 30 to 50 the duty of carrying the mizbeiach, the outdoor copper altar, as well as the swaths of fabric and skin hanging in (and on) the wooden frameworks of the tent and the courtyard wall.

This is the service of the clans of the Gershunites, for serving and for carrying: They must carry the cloths of the mishkan, and along with the Tent of Meeting its [cloth] covering and the tachash covering that is over on top of it, and the curtain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and the hangings [enclosing] the courtyard, and the curtain at the entrance—the gate of the courtyard that is around the mishkan and the mizbeiach; and their cords, and all the equipment for their service. (Naso 4:24-26)

mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) = dwelling place. (Usually God’s dwelling place, i.e. the portable sanctuary. From the root verb shakkan, שָׁכַן = settle, dwell, stay.)

During the 39 years the Israelites travel through the wilderness from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River, the mishkan and the Tent of Meeting are synonymous.

This is the service of the clans of the Gershunites regarding the Tent of Meeting, and their custody is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the High Priest. (Numbers 4:28)

This week’s Torah portion assigns the remaining transport duties to two other divisions of Levites. The Kohatites will transport the holy furnishings inside the tent: the ark, table, lampstand, and incense altar. And the Merarites will transport the disassembled wooden frames of the tent and the courtyard wall.

Covering up

When the Israelites are encamped and the sanctuary is in place, only the priests are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting. Only they may see the sacred objects inside. The Levites assist the priests outside the tent, and guard it from lay intruders. So it makes sense that the priests must cover objects inside, and insert their carrying-poles, before turning them over to the Kohatites to carry. That way, Levites cannot glimpse the sacred objects even when they are breaking camp. (See my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look.)

The copper altar, from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

But why must the priests also cover the mizbeiach before it is carried off? The copper altar stands outside the Tent of Meeting. Everyone who enters the courtyard can see it. People bring animal and grain offerings right up to the altar, and watch the priests burn their offerings on it. The mizbeiach hardly needs to be hidden from sight when the Israelites are traveling.

Symbolic colors

The key, according to 19th-century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is that the copper altar is covered with cloth dyed red-violet. Three colors of wool are used in the cloths the Israelite women weave for the mishkan and its courtyard: twilight blue (techeilet, תְכֵלֶת), red-violet (argaman, אַרְגָּמָן), and scarlet (tola-at shani, תוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי).1 Hirsch wrote that scarlet represents the color of blood, and therefore life at the animal level. Red-violet represents life at the higher, human level. And blue, the color of the sky, represents the limits of our horizon, the divine.

The most holy object, the ark, is covered first with the curtain that normally screens off the back room of the mishkan, the Holy of Holies; in the book of Exodus, this curtain is embroidered using all three colors of wool yarn, as well as fine linen.2 Then comes a layer of tachash skin, and after that a layer of wool cloth dyed with techeilet—an expensive blue dye made from murex sea snails.3. The first coverings over the bread table, the lampstand, and the incense altar are also wool dyed with techeilet. This blue, Hirsch wrote, is “close to God in highest holiness.”4

The first cloth covering the bread table is blue, but then after its utensils are placed on it, it is covered with a second cloth, this one scarlet. Hirsch explained, “The means of existence and prosperity are granted by God’s ‘Countenance,’ but all these ensure only “shani” [scarlet], animal-bodily life.”5

The copper altar, where the animal offerings are burned, does not get a layer of blue cloth. It is unique in that its first covering is red-violet wool.

Argaman cloth

Hirsch explained: “Argaman [red-violet], on the other hand, the higher, human level of life, is not granted by God. Rather, man must attain this level himself by freely mastering his own desires; he must harness all his animal-bodily powers and subordinate them to God’s will. This is symbolized by the offering altar and by the offering procedures performed on it.”6 Following Hirsch’s line of thought, the copper altar might be covered with red-violet cloth in order to illustrate that the sacrificial service at the altar is a method of achieving the human level, the level of free choice, which is symbolized by the red-violet color.


It is possible that the author of the Torah portions Bemidbar and Naso (which scholars attribute to the same Priestly source as most of Leviticus) found meanings in the colors of the coverings. But I propose a less symbolic explanation.

I think the priests cover the gold objects from inside the mishkan not only to prevent the Levites from seeing them, but also in order to treat God’s sacred objects with honor and respect. I can imagine them ceremonial spreading the blue cloth over each item.

They do not cover the copper outside altar with techeilet blue, but they do use cloth dyed with the next highest-ranking color. Red-violet cloth (also made from murex shells and also expensive) was used for the robes of the Kings of Midian and the seat of King Solomon’s throne.7 Covering the mizbeach with this royal color gives it honor and status. Using tachash skin as the top covering would also honor the altar, since the same kind of skin covers the roof of the mishkan.

When the Israelites are encamped, the mizabeiach is used to burn up the fat parts of cattle, sheep, and goats—and sometimes the entire animal—in order to make smoke rise to the heavens for God’s pleasure. This religious act is feasible only because God provides enough abundance so that surplus (mostly male) animals can be slaughtered and offered up.

Since the copper altar is used to honor God and thank God for abundance, it deserves to be honored itself. When the Israelites break camp, the priests honor the altar by draping an expensive royal red-violet cloth over it. This ritual was not as grand as the coronation of a king. But at least it was a way for the priests to show respect for God and their religion.

  1. See my post Bemidbar: Covering the Sacred.
  2. Numbers 4:5 and Exodus 26:31, 36:35.
  3. Numbers 4:7-11.
  4. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Bemidbar, translated by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, p. 51.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The kings of Midian appear in Judges 8:26. King Solomon’s throne is in Song of Songs 3:10.

Haftarat Bemidbar—Hosea: An Unequal Marriage

Everyone obeys God in this week’s Torah portion, the opening of the book of Numbers/Bemidbar (“in a wilderness”). Moses passes on God’s instructions for preparing to leave Mount Sinai and head off through the wilderness again. And the Israelites all organize themselves accordingly.

And the children of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses; thus they did. (Numbers 1:54)

The people’s compliance falls apart before they reach the border of Canaan. But for a while, in the wilderness, Israel and God enjoy a honeymoon.

Metaphors of courtship and marriage are often used later in the Hebrew Bible to express the covenant between God and the Israelites. Going by the order of the books in the canon, the first occurrence is in the book of Isaiah.1 But going by the prophets in historical order, the first occurrence is in the book of Hosea, a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E.

In this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion), Hosea criticizes the northern kingdom for worshiping other gods. He calls the kingdom the “mother” of the Israelites, and declares that she has abandoned her legitimate “husband”, God. As God’s mouthpiece, he urges the kingdom’s children, the Israelite people:

Jezebel, by John Liston Byam Shaw, 19th c. (cropped)

Bring a case against your mother, a case!

For she is not my ishah,

And I am not her ish.

She must clear away the whoredom from her face,

And the sign of adultery from between her breasts.

If not, I will strip her down to her nakedness

            And display her as on the day she was born.

And I will turn her into a wilderness

            And make her like waterless land,

            And let her die of thirst. (Hosea 2:4-5)

ishah (אִשָּׁה) = woman; wife.

ish (אִישׁ) = man; husband.

The kingdom of Israel and God had a covenant like a marriage. But Israel broke it by engaging with other gods, and now God, her husband, is rejecting her. “She is not my ishah, and I am not her ish might be part of an ancient declaration of divorce.

At this point in Hosea’s poem, the God of Israel is still a jealous god, as in the Second Commandment:

You must not bow down to them and you must not serve them; because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am a jealous god … (Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9)

Israel must clean herself up, like a  prostitute who stops working and removes the make-up (whoredom) from her face, and the sachet of perfume (sign of adultery) from between her breasts.2  If she does not clean up her act, God will humiliate her by stripping her naked. In Israel’s case, God will strip away her fields, orchards, vineyards, and even water sources, making the land a desolate wilderness. God will accomplish this by afflicting the kingdom with severe drought.

The drought will affect the children of Israel—all its residents. But God says:

And I will not feel compassion for her children

            Since they are children of whoredom;

Since their mother whored.

            She who conceived them acted shamelessly,

For she thought:

            “I will go after my lovers,

            Who give me my bread and my water,

            My wool and my linen,

            My oil and my drink.” (Hosea 2:6-7)

But Israel deceived herself about the source of her food, shelter, and clothing; it was God who gave her everything.

She will pursue her lovers, but she will not catch them.

She will seek them, but she will not find them.

Then she will say: “I will go and return to my first ish,

Because it was better for me then than now.” (Hosea 2:9)

After Israel makes this cold and calculating decision, the prophecy says, God will continue to deprive her of grain, wine, wool, and flax for a while.

And I will make a reckoning against her for the days of the be-alim

            For which she burned incense

And adorned herself with her nose-ring and her jewelry

            And went after her lovers,

And forgot me!—declares God. (Hosea 2:15)

be-alim (בְּעָלִים) = different local versions of Ba-al (singular of be-alim), a West Semitic god of weather, fertility, and war. (Ba-al (בַּעַל) = master, husband, owner; a West Semitic god.)

The angry God-character in the Torah would probably tell Moses, once again, that it was time to start over and choose a new people to rule Canaan, and then Moses would have to talk God down again. But in the book of Hosea, God will eventually forgive. Once the kingdom of Israel has become a wilderness, God will woo Israel back. 

Therefore, hey! I will be her seducer

            And I will lead her through the wilderness

            And I will speak upon her heart. (Hosea 2:16)

In the Hebrew Bible, speaking upon someone’s heart means changing their feelings. (See my post: Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)

And I will give her grapevines from there,

And the Valley of Akhor as an opening for hope.

She will respond there as in the days of her youth,

As on the day she came up from the land of Egypt.

Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, by Simeon Solomon, 1863

And it will be on that day—declares God—

You will call me “my ish”,

And you will no longer call me “my ba-al”.

I will remove the names of the be-alim from her mouth,

and their names will no longer be remembered. (Hosea 2:17-19)

The statement that Israel will cease to call God her ba-al has a double meaning. Israel will think of God affectionately, as a husband who is her ish (her man), rather than her ba-al (her master). But also she will no longer call upon Ba-al, the Canaanite deity.

The haftarah ends with a marriage formula (which has become part of the prayer for putting on tefillin3):

I will betroth you to me forever,

And I will betroth you to me with rightness and with lawfulness,

And with loyalty and with mercy;

And I will betroth you to me with faithfulness,

And you will know God. (Hosea 2:21-22)

This strikes me as an amazing betrothal. In our modern world, when two human beings get engaged, we assume both parties want the marriage and are independently motivated to commit to it. But in this passage, all the commitment comes from God.

Are rightness, lawfulness, loyalty, mercy, and faithfulness the qualities that God is promising to exhibit as Israel’s future husband? Or are they the qualities that God intends to instill in Israel, so the marriage can last?

Either way, all Israel does is respond when God speaks upon her heart. God does not require any prior searching, repentance, or reform on Israel’s part. God will take care of everything. And then, the text promises, you will know God. The verb for “know” here, yada (יָדַ), is used for knowledge from direct experience, including sexual knowledge.

During the periods of my life when I felt lost in a wilderness, I continued to sing prayers, but I did not have the heart to passionately seek God. I recited the Shema, with its command: You must love God, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5). But I have never achieved it. I love my husband that way, but then, I know him much better than I know God.

I am acquainted with people who claim to know (have direct experience of) God. I have had a few fleeting transcendent experiences myself, but I would not presume to claim that they were direct experiences of God. And I am content with not knowing—as well as grateful for all the blessings in my life, whatever their source. Paradoxically, one great blessing is that I am able to engage with Torah and think about God.

Yet some people need more than that. So I pray that everyone who needs a personal commitment to God will be blessed to hear God speak upon their hearts, and to know God.

  1. Isaiah 54:1-10.
  2. See Song of Songs 1:13.
  3. Tefillin (תְּפִלִין) is the Hebrew word for the set of two black leather boxes with straps which a Jewish man traditionally wraps around his head and none-dominant arm before praying. (The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah, תְּפִלַּה.) “Laying” or wrapping oneself with tefillin is like putting on a wedding ring: a tangible sign of commitment.

Jeremiah & Psalm 139: Mind Versus Conscience

Jeremiah offers an insight on human psychology in the haftarah reading that accompanies the Torah portion Bechukotai in Leviticus this week. The haftarah (Jeremiah 16:19-17:14) warms up with one of Jeremiah’s predictions that the kingdom of Judah will be lost because its people lack trust in God and persist in worshiping idols. (Jeremiah lived through the Babylonian conquest of Judah and their siege and destruction of Jerusalem.)

Jeremiah adds that the people of Judah should not expect their own military power to save them.

            Cursed is the man who trusts in humankind,

                        And makes human flesh his strength. (Jeremiah 17:5)

In other words, you cannot win a war with armies alone. Jeremiah goes on to say that only those who trust in God will flourish. (See my post Haftarat Bechukotai–Jeremiah: Trust Me.) Then he touches on another problem about trusting human beings. His two-verse gem on human psychology is rich in words that can be translated as either physical objects or psychological states. So I made three translations. The first one leaves the metaphors in the original Hebrew:

The leiv (לֵב) is more akov (עָקֺב) than anything,

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a leiv,

                        Testing the kelayot (כְּלָיוֹת),

And allotting to a man according to his drachim (דְּרָכִים),

                        According to the peri (פְּרִי) of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Next I translate the ambiguous words literally:

The heart is more a heel than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a heart,

                        Testing the kidneys,

And allotting to a man according to his roads,

                        According to the fruit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Finally, here is a version with all the ambiguous words translated metaphorically:

The mind is more devious than anything.

                        And it is pathological; who can understand it?

I am God, who investigates a mind,

                        Examining the conscience,

And allotting to a man according to his conduct,

                        According to the result of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

Heart and Kidneys

In English, the heart is the metaphorical location of feelings, while the brain is the location of thoughts. In the Hebrew Bible, the heart is the seat of both feeling and thinking. The word for “heart” (leiv or levav) is used for the whole conscious mind—except for one mental function: our conscience. The awareness of what we ought to do is assigned to the kidneys in the bible. (See my post: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.) Kidneys are often paired with hearts because, according to one commentary:

“The kidneys advise the heart, and the heart decides.”1

If we are accustomed to following our “kidneys” (conscience), our decision-making is straightforward; we reject thoughts of gratifying our immoral impulses, choose the course of action God would approve of, and do it. But if we do not listen for the voice of our conscience, its advice is drowned out by conflicting desires, our “hearts” (minds) make less virtuous decisions, and we reflexively invent devious rationalizations for them.

“Who can understand it?” indicates that people cannot fully understand even their own minds, nor the minds of their fellow human beings. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology and understand everything inside, heart and kidneys.

Jeremiah: Examine me and my enemies

Biblical characters who believe they are virtuous, and their enemies are not, welcome God’s investigation of human minds. In two other poetic passages in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet urges God to examine and punish his enemies. Before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah reports that God told him idolaters from his hometown, Anatot, were scheming to kill him in order to stop his prophesies.

            Then God let me know, and I knew.

                        That was when you let me see their deeds.

            And I was like a docile lamb who was brought to slaughter,

                        And I did not know that they had plotted plots against me …

            So God of Hosts, righteous judge,

                        Who examines kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 11:18-20)

In a passage after this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah is released from prison in Jerusalem but cannot stop speaking God’s prophecies, even though the city is full of informers. He uses similar language about these Jerusalemites:

            So God of Hosts, righteous examiner,

                        Who sees kidneys (conscience) and heart (mind),

            Let me see your vengeance upon them!

                        For I bring my case to you. (Jeremiah 20:12) 

Psalm 139: Improve my thoughts

Psalm 139 begins:

            God, you investigate me and you know me.

                        You know when I sit down or get up.

                        You see my thoughts from afar. (Psalm 139:1-2)

The psalmist marvels at everything God knows about a person, concluding:

            Knowledge is too extraordinary for me;

                        It is too high; I am not capable of it. (Psalm 139:6)

The next verse is:

            Where could I go from your spirit?

                        And where could I disappear from your presence? (Psalm 139: 7)      

The 19th-century commentator S.R. Hirsch elaborated on these two questions, filling in the context: “Where could I go to escape Your ‘spirit’ so that it might not move me, stir me, fill my heart and summon my conscience before Your judgment seat? And whither could I flee from Your ‘countenance’ where You would not see me, where Your rule would not touch me?”2

In other words, God is not an abstract omniscient deity to the psalmist; they feel God’s spirit move through their mind, move their own spirit, and summon their own conscience—which then reminds the mind of God’s judgment.

The next five verses expand on how there is no place to hide from God. The psalmist then explains:

            Because you yourself produced my kidneys (conscience);

                        You wove me together in my mother’s belly.  (Psalm 139:13)

After realizing the intimate relationship between the inner conscience and the judgement of God, the psalmist concludes by asking for God’s evaluation:

            Search me, God, and know my heart (mind);

                        Examine me and know my thoughts,

            And see if a distressing road (line of conduct) is in me;

                        Then lead me on an everlasting road (line of conduct)! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The conscience has won.

The human mind is devious, Jeremiah says in this week’s haftarah. When we become accustomed to avoiding the advice of our conscience, our excuses and self-deception become pathological. Only God can investigate a human’s psychology, see through the deception, and deal justice to evildoers.

The writer of Psalm 139 finds God’s attention to the human mind uncomfortably invasive at first, but then welcomes God’s correction through one’s innate conscience. It is better to give up transitory secret pleasures, the psalmist concludes, in order to lead a life dedicated to doing the right things.

Some people succumb to immoral impulses frequently, and deceive themselves as well as others about their motivations. As Jeremiah says, the human mind is naturally devious. But as Psalm 139 says, humans are born with a conscience.3 It is up to us to decide how much to listen to it, and how much to reject it and rationalize our decisions.

  1. Midrash Tehillim (a collection of commentary on the Psalms completed by the 11th century C.E.), Psalm 14:1 on Jeremiah 17:10.
  2. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Tehillim, translated by Gertrude Hirschler, Feldheim Publishers, Nanuet, NY, 2014 (original German edition 1882), p. 1107.
  3. Except, perhaps, for the small percentage of humans who are sociopathic or psychopathic. It is still a matter of debate whether someone with a weak or nonexistent conscience is born that way, or becomes that way through certain kinds of early childhood trauma.

Emor & Job: A Sacred Name

A man who blasphemes the name of God is executed in this week’s Torah portion, Emor, in the book of Leviticus.

In English, “blasphemy” means insulting or showing contempt for a god, or for something sacred. In Biblical Hebrew, there is no word that exactly corresponds to “blasphemy”. Humans do not have the power to profane God, and our curses are only effective if God chooses to carry them out. We can, however, misuse sacred objects, making them chalal חָלַל = profaned, degraded by being used for an ordinary purpose. And we can insult or belittle God’s name, which is a type of blasphemy.1 In  Biblical Hebrew, one’s name also means one’s reputation.

Yet the idea of reviling God or God’s name was so abominable to the ancient Israelites that the bible usually indicates blasphemy through euphemisms or near-synonyms.

Blasphemy with a euphemism in 1 Kings and Job

Naboth’s Stoning in Front of the Vineyard, Anon., Prague, 14th century

The verb barakh (בָּרַךְ), meaning to bless or utter a blessing, appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible. But twice in the first book of Kings and four times in the book of Job, this verb serves as a euphemism for blaspheming or cursing God.

In 1 Kings, Nabot owns a vineyard adjacent to palace of King Ahab. Ahab offers to buy the land, but Nabot refuses. The king is so upset that his wife, Jezebel, schemes to kill Nabot so she can seize the vineyard for her husband. She writes orders in the king’s name telling the judges of the town to summon Nabot.

“And seat two worthless men opposite him, and they must testify, saying: ‘Beirakhta God and king!’ Then take him out and stone him so he dies.” (1 Kings 21:10)

beirakhta (בֵּרַכְתָּ) = you “blessed”.

The judges follow orders. The two worthless men use exactly those words, and everyone knows they really mean that Nabot reviled God and the king. Nabot is executed by stoning.

At the beginning of the book of Job, Job is so devout he makes extra burnt offerings for his adult children, saying to himself:

“Perhaps my children are guilty, uveirakhu God in their hearts.” (Job 1:15)

uveirakhu (וּבֵרַכוּ) = and they “blessed”.

Job not only worries that his children might have some negative thoughts about God, but even uses a euphemism for blasphemy when he talks to himself.

The action of the story switches to the heavenly court of the “children of God”—perhaps lesser gods or angels. The God character mentions how upright and God-fearing Job is. The satan (שָׂטָן = adversary, accuser) in the court points out that God has blessed Job with wealth and children, so of course the man responds with grateful service. He adds:

“However, just stretch out your hand and afflict everything that is his. Surely yevarakhekha to your face!” (Job 1:11)

yevarakhekha (יְוָרַכֶךָּ) = he will “bless” you.

Thus the satan in the heavenly court also uses blessing as a euphemism for cursing God. The God character gives the satan permission to run the experiment, and in four simultaneous disasters Job loses his livestock, his servants, and all his children. Job responds:

“Y-H-V-H gave and Y-H-V-H took away. May the name of Y-H-V-H be a mevorakh.” Through all that, Job did not sin and did not accuse God of worthlessness. (Joab 1:21)

mevorakh (מְבֺרָךְ) = blessing.

Here Job actually does bless God’s four-letter personal name. He does not use the word for “bless” to revile or curse God.

The God character points out to the satan that Job’s devotion to God has not wavered. The satan replies:

“But a man will give up all that he has [to save] his life. However, just stretch out your hand and afflict his bones and his flesh. Surely yevarakhekha to your face!” (Job 2:5)

Job and his Wife, Venice Codex, 905 C.E.

Again the satan uses blessing as a euphemism for blasphemy, and again the God character authorizes the experiment, asking only that the satan spare Job’s life. Job comes down with a painful inflammation from head to toe, and he sits in an ash-heap scratching himself.

Then Job’s wife utters her famous cry of despair, “Curse God and die!” But in the original Hebrew she expresses it this way:

“You still cling to your uprightness? Bareikh God and die!” (Job 2:9)

bareikh (בָּרֵךְ) = “bless!”

The reader or listener is expected to understand that “bless!” means the opposite, and should have the equivalent of air-quotes around it. Either Job’s wife does not want to go so far as to say “curse God” herself, or the author of the book does not.

Near-synonyms for blasphemy in Emor

People in the Hebrew Bible also commit blasphemy by using near-synonyms for “blaspheme”: verbs that mean curse, belittle, or revile, but count as blasphemy when they are applied to God or the name of God. The near-synonyms in this week’s Torah portion, Emor, are:

  • nakav (נָקַב) = pierce, put a hole in, designate, curse,
  • kalal (ַקַלַל) in the piel stem = belittle, insult, revile, curse.

One of God’s commands in the book of Exodus is:

Lo tekaleil God! (Exodus 22:27)

lo tekaleil (לֺא תְקַלֵּל) = you must not belittle, revile, curse. (lo, לֺא = not + tekaleil, תְקַלֵּל = you must belittle, insult, revile, curse; from the piel stem of the root verb kalal.)

Even though a human cannot actually inflict a curse on God, it is possible to belittle or revile God’s reputation. The word for “God” in this command is not God’s four-letter personal name, but Elohim (אֳלֺהִים) = God, a god, gods. The God of Israel does not want to be belittled or reviled by any name.

The command in Exodus is violated in this week’s Torah portion, Emor.

A son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the Israelites. And the Israelite woman’s son and an Israelite man scuffled in the camp. Vayikov the name, the Israelite woman’s son, vayekaleil, and he was brought to Moses. The name of his mother was Shelomit, daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan. (Leviticus 24:10-11)

vayikov (וַיִּקּב) = and he pierced, put a hole through, designated, cursed. (A form of the verb nakav.)

vayekaleil (וַיְקַלֵּל) = and he belittled, insulted, reviled, cursed. (A form of the root verb kalal in the piel stem.)

Does he curse God’s name? Or does he curse the Israelite man he is scuffling with, using God’s name in a curse formula?2 We do not know; this week’s Torah portion adds vayekaleil (and he belittled, reviled) without a direct object. But whatever Shelomit’s son says, we know he is misusing God’s name.

And they put him into custody [to wait] for exact information for themselves from the mouth of God. Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “Take hamekaleil outside the camp, and all who heard must lay their hands on his head. Then the whole community must stone him.” (Leviticus 24:12-14)

hamekaleil (הַמְקַלֵּל) = the belittler, the insulter, the reviler, the curser. (Also in the piel stem of the verb kalal.)

Moses and some of the other judges in the community have already determined, on the testimony of multiple witnesses, that Shelomit’s son is guilty. They wait only for God to tell Moses what the sentence should be, and God obliges.

Next God provides a general rule about blasphemy:

“And you must speak to the Israelites, saying: Anyone yekaleil his eloha will bear the burden of his guilt. Venokeiv the Name of God, he must definitely be put to death; the whole community must definitely stone him. Resident alien and native alike, benakvo the Name he must be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:15-16)

yekaleil (יְחַלֵּל) = who belittles, insults, reviles, curses. (Also in the piel stem of the verb kalal.)

eloha (אֱלֺהָ) = god. (Singular of Elohim.)

venokeiv (וְנֺקֵב) = and one who curses. (Another form of the verb nakav.)

benakvo (בְּנָקְבוֹ) = when he curses. (Also from nakav.)

One way to interpret this command is that anyonewho reviles his own god is guilty and will be punished in some undetermined way; but anyone who reviles the personal name of the God of Israel must be executed.

The Talmud (6th century C.E.) agrees that “For cursing the ineffable name of God, one is liable to be executed with a court-imposed death penalty.” But it interprets “anyone yekaleil his eloha” as anyone who reviles or curses one of the less sacred names of God, such as Elohim.3

Rashbam 4 wrote in the 12th century C.E. that God would deliver the punishment to someone who cursed a lesser name of God, so human judges did not need to take action. 

The God character in the portion Emor immediately adds:

“And a man who strikes down the life of any human being, he must definitely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17)

There are other death penalties in the Torah, but this juxtaposition makes a point. Reviling God’s personal name is as bad as destroying a human being, who is made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

Shelomit’s son in this week’s Torah portion might have had a good reason for cursing God’s name. According to Sifra, a 4th-century C.E. commentary,

He had come to Moses asking him to render a judgment in his favor so that he could pitch his tent in the camp of Dan, his mother’s tribe.  Moses ruled against him because of the regulation (Numbers 2:2) that the order of the encampment was to be strictly governed by the father’s ancestry.  His resentment against the unfavorable ruling by Moses led him to blaspheme.5

In this addition to the biblical story, he curses when he is scuffling with an Israelite from the tribe of Dan who insults or excludes him.

I can sympathize with Shelomit’s son, and I think he should have been reprimanded, not executed, for expressing his anger with a curse.

Does it really matter if we give God a bad reputation? Ancient Israelite society depended on respect for God and therefore obedience to God’s laws, so reviling God could be an incitement to insurrection. Modern multicultural societies depend on obedience to civil laws and respect for those who follow different religions from your own. Today, I believe, it matters if we give a religion a bad reputation.

May we all bless, not curse, one another. And may we refrain from belittling or reviling any human being, for the sake of the divine image in every one of us.

  1. “God in principle cannot be hurt by any human act, but His name, available for manipulation and debasement in human linguistic practice, can suffer injury, and for this injury the death penalty is exacted, as here in the case of murder.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 652.)
  2. One example of a curse formula appears in Psalm 109:20: “May this be God’s repayment to my enemies …”
  3. Talmud Bavli, Shevuot 36a, translation by The William Davidson Talmud,
  4. Rashbam is the acronym of 12th-century Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir.
  5. Translation by

Kedoshim: Ethical Holiness

It’s not easy to be holy.

The Torah portion called Kedoshim (“Holy”, Leviticus 19:1-20:27) begins:

And Y-H-V-H spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the whole assembly of Israelites, and you shall say to them: “You must be kedoshim, because I, Y-H-V-H, your God, am kadosh.” (Leviticus 19:1-2)

kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ), plural kedoshim (קְדֺשִׁים) = holy, consecrated; set apart for God; dedicated to a sacred purpose.1 (From the root verb kadash, קָדַשׁ = be holy, make holy, consecrate, treat as sacred.)

All the Israelites must be holy, not just the priests. The first thing God asked Moses to tell the Israelites when they reached Mount Sinai was:

“And now, if you really listen to my voice and you observe my covenant, you will be to me a treasure among all the peoples, since all the earth is mine. And you will become to me a kingdom of priests and a nation kadosh.” (Exodus 19:6)

Objects are holy when they are reserved for use in the religion of the God of Israel. Animals are holy when they are reserved as slaughter-offerings for God. Human beings are holy when they listen to and obey all of God’s rules. A holy nation would be a nation obedient to God. Apparently God is holy by definition.

According to the Talmud there are 613 rules in the Torah,2 although rabbis generally agree that only 271 of these can still be observed today, now that there are no more temple sacrifices in Jerusalem. Kedoshim, one of this week’s two portions,3 lists 40-50 rules (depending on how you divide them up).

Partway through Kedoshim there is a pause in the list of rules while God says:

Vehitkadishitem and you will become kedoshim, because I am Y-H-V-H your God. And you must observe my decrees and do them; I, Y-H-V-H, am mekadishkhem. (Leviticus 20:7-8)

vehitkadishitem (וְהִתְקַדִּשְׁתֶּם) = and you must make yourselves holy. (A form of the verb kadash.)

mekadishkhem (מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם) = the one making you holy. (A participle form of the verb kadash.)

In other words, human holiness is a joint effort. If we observe God’s decrees and do them, God makes us holy.

Eleven of the rules in Kedoshim are about ritual and religious practices—tthree to perform properly and eight to avoid doing.4 The rest of the rules are about doing what is right in relation to other human beings—in other words, ethics. We humans must be ethical to be holy.

A few of the ethical decrees in Kedoshim, such as You must not steal (Leviticus 19:11), appear in the ethical codes of almost all cultures. Nine of the thirteen rules about when or with whom sexual intercourse is forbidden are generally observed today. (The most notable exception is the rule that, in a plain reading, declares sex between two men taboo and punishable by death.5 This rule is the subject of much discussion and reinterpretation today.)

And some of the rules are challenging for any human being to follow.

Revering parents

One of these eternally challenging rules is the first one in the list:

Each man must revere his mother and his father. (Leviticus 19:3)

As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote, “Anyone who has any experience in this knows how difficult it is. It is something that we are faced with every day, and it can be especially challenging when one’s father and mother are themselves not exceptionally holy people.”6

Nevertheless, in order to be holy—or truly ethical—we must treat our parents with utmost respect, regardless of our opinions. I think I achieved this most of the time during the last year of my mother’s life, but it made me a nervous wreck.

Rescuing from death

After several more manageable rules, we get another challenging command:

You mut not stand by the blood of your fellow. (Leviticus 19:16)

Early in the Talmudic period (around 300 C.E.) Sifra established that this law means you must not avoid taking action when someone’s life is in danger. Sifra’s three examples are that you must not remain silent if you can testify on someone’s behalf; that you must rescue someone you see drowning, or attacked by robbers or a wild beast; and that you must kill any man you see pursuing someone in order to kill or rape them.7

Saving an innocent person’s life or limb is certainly a good deed. But what if you see a person with a weapon pursuing a second person, who appears to be running after a third person? Is the first person a murderer or a rescuer? What if you get it wrong?

And should you put yourself in a situation where a potential murderer might well turn on you?

Loving your fellow

Kedoshim also contains the famous dictum:

You must love your fellow as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

Who is your fellow (or neighbor, in some translations)—the people you are acquainted with? All Jews? All human beings on earth?

Do you need to feel loving, or is it enough to act lovingly? How do you know what a relative stranger would consider a loving action? What if you do not love yourself? (I address some of these questions in my post: Kedoshim: Love Them Anyway.)

Is it enough to follow Rabbi Hillel’s rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor”8 and refrain from harming anyone? That alone would require constant attention and evaluation. Is it even possible to benefit everyone all the time, out of the goodness of your heart?

And more …

Other ethical challenges in Kedoshim include feeding the poor (Leviticus 19:10), being honest (19:11), not insulting “the deaf” (19:14), not putting a stumbling-block in front of “the blind” (19:14), not hating (19:17), and loving the immigrant as you love yourself (19:32-33).

I have to conclude that complete holiness is out of reach for most human beings. Yet I believe that to be fully human, we must stop and ponder what our ethical ideals should be, and then strive to come closer to meeting them. The ethical rules in Kedoshim are a good place to start the search for ideals, especially if we think about each rule. Is it an artifact of another culture, which we should discard today? Or is it a command we should embrace as one of our highest principles?

  1. For a fuller discussion of what makes someone holy, see my post: Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.
  2. Talmud Bavli, Tractate Makkot 23b, says there are 613 mitzvot (divine commands or rules). The most famous list detailing what they are is in Mishneh Torah by Maimonides.
  3. Since this is a short year in the Hebrew lunar calendar, this week Jews read a double portion in Leviticus: Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.
  4. To do (with some elements of refraining): Leviticus 19:5-8, 19:23-25,19:30, and 20:25. To refrain from (with some elements of doing): Leviticus 19:4, 19:19, 19:26 (2 rules), 19:27, 19:28, 19:31 & 20:27, and 20:1-6.
  5. Leviticus 20:13.
  6. Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 250.
  7. Sifra, Kedoshim Chapter 4:8.
  8. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a.

Haftarat Tazria—2 Kings: Subordination

Would you rather read a procedure manual or a story? This week’s double Torah portion, Tzaria and Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:32), provides a detailed manual for priests regarding a skin disease called tzaraat. But the two accompanying haftarah readings are stories about people with that disease.1

The haftarah for Tazria stars Naaman, a rich Aramaean army commander who goes to the kingdom of Israel to cure his tzaraat. He is healed only after he humbles himself to the prophet Elisha. (See my blog post: Tazria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.) But without the kindness of his subordinates, his mission would have failed.

A kind servant: the Israelite girl

Those with power can use it to be benevolent to their subordinates. But how can subordinates be benevolent to their superiors? The story of Naaman gives two examples of servants who help their masters without exercising power. The first is an Israelite captive who has become a slave.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man lifnei his master, and high in favor because through [Naaman] Y-H-V-H had granted victory to Aram. And the man was a powerful landowner metzora. And Aramaeans went out in raiding parties, and they brought back from the land of Israel a young adolescent girl, and she became lifnei Naaman’s wife. And she said to her mistress: “If only my master were lifnei the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would take away his metzora.” (2 Kings 5:1-3)

lifnei (לִפְנֵי) = before, in front of, subordinate to. (The prefix le,לְ־  (to, toward, at, in relation to) + penei, פְּנֵי (face of—a form of the noun panim,  פָּנִים= face, front). Therefore literally, lifnei = in relation to the face of.)

metzora (מְצֺרָע) = stricken with tzaraat (צָרַעַת), a skin disease (formerly and inaccurately translated as “leprosy”) characterized by one or more patches of scaly dead-white skin. These patches might also be streaked with red, and/or lower than the surrounding skin.2

Naaman is a very important person; he is subordinate to, lifnei, only the king of Aram. The captive young Israelite is a female slave, the most subservient rank in the Ancient Near East. She is subordinate to, lifnei, Naaman’s wife. A girl in her position might resent being seized by soldiers, taken to a foreign land, and forced to serve as a slave. She might well hate the husband of her mistress, who is a military commander and may even have led the raiding party that captured her.

On the other hand, most females in the Ancient Near East grew up expecting to be under the control of a male head of household, whether he was their father, husband, adult son (in the case of widows), or owner. Many girls in impoverished families were sold as slaves. The Israelite girl might be relieved that she is now living in comfort in a rich man’s house. And perhaps Naaman is true to his name, which means “Pleasant One” in Hebrew (from the root verb na-am, נָעַם = was pleasant, was agreeable.)

The Israelite girl is kind-hearted enough to wish that her master were cured of his skin disease, and she knows that tzaraat rarely heals. So she mentions a wonder-worker to her mistress: the prophet in Samaria, the capital of the kingdom of Israel. When she says “If only my master were lifnei the prophet!” her  Aramaean mistress assumes she means “If only my master were in front of the prophet!”, and passes on the information to her husband.3

Kingdoms circa 900 BCE

Refusing subordination: Naaman

In the kingdom of Israel, anyone whom a priest certifies as having tzaraat is ritually impure and must live outside their town until they recover (if ever). Being metzora is easier in Aram. The disease is not considered contagious; we learn later in the story that the king of Aram leans on Naaman’s arm when he goes into the temple of Rimon in Damascus.4 And tzaraat does not prevent Naaman from living in Damascus, the capital of Aram, or from leading his troops. Yet his skin disease is unsightly, and may be unpleasant in other ways as well. Naaman wants to be cured. So he takes chariots, horses, men, gifts, and a letter from his king to Israel.

And Naaman came with his horses and with his chariots, and he stood at the entrance of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent to him a messenger saying: “Go, and you must bathe seven times in the Jordan. Then your flesh will be restored, and you will be ritually pure.” (2 Kings 5:9-10)

Just as the word lifnei sometimes indicates a subordinate position in Biblical Hebrew, someone who stands and waits in front of someone else is a subordinate (or is temporarily assuming a subordinate position as a polite gesture). Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house riding in a chariot, but when he stands waiting at the door he is in a subservient position. By refusing to see Naaman in person, Elisha underlines the idea that he outranks the Aramaean commander.

Then Naaman became enraged, and he went off and he said: “Hey, I thought he would certainly go and stand and call in the name of Y-H-V-H, his god, and wave his hand at the place, and he would take away the tzaraat. Aren’t Amanah and Farpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I bathe in them and become pure?” Vayefen and he went away in a rage. (2 Kings 5:11-12)

vayefen (וַיֶּפֶן) = and he faced away, and he turned away. (From the same root as panim and lifnei.)

Naaman knows he is a very important person. He expects the prophet to treat him as at least an equal.Elisha ought to invite the commander inside his house and stand waiting in front of him. After that, Naaman thinks, Elisha ought to personally wave his hand over the diseased patch of skin as he calls on his God.

In his resentment that Elisha is acting like his superior, Naaman also interprets Elisha’s order to bathe in the Jordan as an assertion that Israel’s river is superior to either of the two small rivers in Damascus.

Naaman is willing to be subordinate to the king of Aram, but not to the prophet in Israel. So he stops waiting lifnei Elisha’s door. He turns his face away in rejection.

More kind servants: Naaman’s retinue

The Cleansing of Naaman, Biblia Sacra Germanica, 1466

When Naaman walks away, his own attendants try to make him see reason. They are not in a position to order him to follow Elisha’s orders. But they can offer a reasonable argument.

Then his attendants came forward and spoke to him, and they said: “Sir!” They said: “[If] the prophet said to you [to do] a big thing, wouldn’t you do it? And yet he only said to you: Bathe and be pure.” (2 Kings 5:13)

Naaman listens, swallows his pride, and does the sensible thing.

Then he went down and he dipped in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had spoken. And his flesh came back like the flesh of an adolescent boy, and he was ritually pure. (2 Kings 5:14)

Choosing subordination: Naaman

Then he came back to the man of God, he and his whole camp [of men]. And he came and he stood waiting lefanav, and he said: “Hey! Please!  I know that there is no god in the whole world unless it is in Israel. So now, please take a blessing from your servant!” (2 Kings 5:15)

lefanav (לְפָנָיו) = to his face, in front of him, subordinate to him.

When one important person in the bible speaks to another, he often calls himself “your servant” to be polite. Here Naaman also stands waiting in front of Elisha, in a  subordinate position. And he acknowledges that he (and everyone else) is subordinate to the God of Israel.

Naaman has brought silver, gold, and ten outfits of expensive clothing5 to Samaria so he could pay the prophet for a cure. But now the two men stand in a different relationship. They are not buyer and seller, but a man of God and a witness of God’s power.  So Naaman begs Elisha to accept a “blessing”. They both know he means a tangible gift, not just words of blessing.6

Choosing subordination: Elisha

But [Elisha] said: “By the life of Y-H-V-H, whom I stand waiting lefanav, if I take—” (2 Kings 5:16)

Elisha declares that he is subordinate only to God. His unfinished oath is a polite way of saying that he refuses to take anything from Naaman. Since Elisha works only for God, he does not sell his services. He caused Naaman’s healing in order to prove a point, not for any material benefit.

After the Elisha refuses Naaman’s second offer of a gift, Naaman asks him for a gift: as much dirt as two mules can carry. He explains that then he can go home to Aram and create a patch of Israelite ground where he can worship Elisha’s god. Naaman promises he will never sacrifice to any other god again, and hopes the God of Israel will forgive him for continuing to provide an arm for the king of Aram to lean on when the king enters the temple of Rimon.

And [Elisha] said to him: “Go in peace.” And he went away from him some distance.  (2 Kings 5:19)

“Go in peace” is a polite way for a superior or father figure to give permission.7 Thus the haftarah ends with the new pecking order, in which Naaman has become a willing subordinate to God, and perhaps to God’s prophet Elisha, as well as to the king of Aram.

The insubordinate subordinate

Although the haftarah reading ends there, the story of Naaman continues in 2 Kings. Elisha’s servant Geihazi thinks his master was wrong about not taking anything from the rich Aramaean. So he runs after Naaman and his retinue. Naaman steps down from his chariot to greet him. And Geihazi lies to him, saying:

“My master sent me to say: Hey, now this: two adolescent boys just came to me from the hills of Efrayim, from the disciples of the prophets. Please give them a kikar of silver and two changes of clothing.” (2 Kings 5:22)

Geihazi Asks Naaman for a Reward, by the Masters of Otto van Moerdrecht, 1430

Geihazi does not dare claim that Elisha changed his mind and now wants the entire gift, but he is clever enough to invent a pretext for getting part of it. Naaman insists on giving him twice as much silver as he asked for, and dispatches two of his own servants to carry the clothes and the two bags of silver  back to Samaria. At the city gate Geihazi takes the goods. If he had wanted to leave Elisha and set himself up with his own farm or business, he should have exchanged them at the marketplace then and there. Instead he brings the silver and clothing into Elisha’s house.

And he entered and he stood waiting before his master, and Elisha said to him: “From where, Geihazi?” (2 Kings 6:25)

Geihazi claims he did not go anywhere, but his master knows he is lying. Elisha accuses him of taking money from Naaman to buy things for himself, and adds:

“The tzaraat of Naaman will cling to you and to your descendants forever!” And [Geihazi] went away from lefanav, metzora like snow. (2 Kings 5:27)

Insubordination is not always punished so severely. Yet after rereading the whole story of Naaman, I am in favor of being a helpful subordinate, like Naaman’s attendants and his wife’s slave. If your superiors do you no harm, why not be kind and improve their lives—without  stepping on their toes?

And if your superior is not benign, it is better to quit the job altogether than to lie and connive behind the boss’s back. Quitting is easier now, in a world where slavery has become rare, though finding a new job can still be hard. But if you do not respect your superior, you should still act so that you can respect yourself. Otherwise, even if your skin looks good, your soul will be disfigured.

  1. The haftarah for Metzora features four starving Israelites forced to live outside the city walls because of their disease. See my posts Haftarat Metzora—2 Kings: Insiders & Ousiders and Haftarat Metzora—2 Kings: A Response to Rejection
  2. Leviticus 13:2-3, 13:10-22, 13:18-28, 13:42-44. Cf. Numbers 12:10-12.
  3. Ancient Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew are closely related Semitic languages, but it would take a while for the Israelite girl to master Aramaic, and nobody would expect her to express subtle shades of meaning.
  4. 2 Kings 5:18.
  5. 2 Kings 5:5. Cf. the fancy tunic Jacob gives Joseph in Genesis 37:3-4, and Joseph’s gifts of clothing to his brothers in Genesis 45:22.
  6. Cf. Jacob’s “blessing” to Esau in Genesis 33:11.
  7. 2 Kings 5:19.
  8. Cf. Exodus 4:18, where Moses’ father-in-law says it before Moses leaves him and returns to Egypt..
  9. 2 Kings 5:20-27.

Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: Consolidation of Power

The Consecration of Aaron, Holman Bible, 1890

Religious and secular authority are combined in a new power structure both in this week’s Torah portion (Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:41) and in the haftarah reading (2 Samuel 6:1-7:17). In the Torah portion, Moses (the prophet and de facto ruler of the Israelites) consecrates his own brother Aaron as the first high priest. In the haftarah, King David installs the Ark of the Covenant in his new capital and serves as a priest.

Both stories include a reminder that the religion of the Israelites is perilous. After Aaron’s four sons are consecrated as priests, two of them bring incense into the tent-sanctuary without permission, and God kills them. (See my post: Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.) When King David is bringing the ark to Jerusalem and one of the ark’s priestly attendants steadies it with his hand, God kills the man instantly. (See my post: Shemini & 2 Samuel: Segregating the Holy.)

Yet the consolidation of religious and secular authority is apparently worth the danger to both Moses and David. In Leviticus, Moses is following God’s instructions for creating the priesthood and inaugurating the tent-sanctuary. But in 2 Samuel, David figures out what to do on his own.

The king before David

David became the second king of Israel after a career as a musician, a warrior—and a rival of the first king, Saul.

Saul was a tall, handsome young man searching ineffectually for his father’s lost donkeys when the prophet Samuel secretly anointed him king. Samuel then told Saul to walk to a meeting of tribal leaders.

Saul Prophesies with the Prophets, sketch by James Tissot, circa 1900

“And … you should come to the Hill of the Gods, where there is a Philistine outpost. And it will happen as you enter the town there, you will encounter a band of neviyim coming down from the hill-shrine, preceded by lute and drum and flute and lyre. And they will be mitnaviym. And the spirit of Y-H-V-H will come over you powerfully, vehitnaviyta along with them, and you will be transformed into another man.” (1 Samuel 10:5-6)

neviyim (נְוִיאִם) = professional ecstatics; prophets. (Singular נָבִיא.)

mitnaviym (מִתְנאבְּאִים) = speaking in ecstasy, raving, acting like an ecstatic; speaking prophecy.

vehitnaviyta (וְהִתְנַבִּים) = and you will act like an ecstatic.

It happened just as Samuel predicted.

And [Saul] finished meihitnavot, and he entered the hill-shrine. (1 Samuel 10:13)

meihitnavot (מֵהִתְנַבּוֹת) = from raving, from speaking in ecstasy.

The neviyim who came down from the hill-shrine were not prophets like Samuel, but professional ecstatics who were moved by the spirit of a god connected with the hill-shrine.1 Saul was moved by the spirit of Y-H-V-H, the God of Israel. Religion in the hill-country of Canaan at that time seems to have been a mixture of practices prescribed in the Torah and the customs of indigenous polytheists.

After Saul arrived at the meeting, he was chosen king by lot, and then everyone went home. But the next time a belligerent chieftain attacked an Israelite clan, Saul rallied the disorganized Israelite tribes, led a united army to battle, and won. Apparently his experience of raving and/or dancing in public had indeed transformed him.

Saul began a long campaign against the Philistines, who had been migrating in from the Mediterranean coast and capturing the hill country where the Israelites lived. But he did not follow Samuel’s orders closely enough for the prophet’s satisfaction, and Samuel secretly anointed a new king, a boy named David. Saul began having episodes of mental illness, and he hired David to soothe him at those times by playing the lyre. Then David volunteered for single combat with the Philistine giant Goliath. He became a successful and popular warrior and military leader, and Saul became insanely jealous. Saul ordered David’s murder, and David fled.

After King Saul died in a battle against the Philistines, David became the king—first of Judah, then of all the territory of Israel. He captured the southern part of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his new capital, the City of David.

David as king, ecstatic, and priest

Meanwhile, the prophet Samuel has died, and there is no one in the land with his religious authority. King David, always inventive, figures out in this week’s haftarah how to acquire some religious authority himself.

His first idea is to move the Ark of the Covenant into the City of David. Back when the prophet Samuel was a child, the Philistines had captured the ark in battle. But when they brought it home, it destroyed one of their own idols and caused two plagues, so they returned it to Israelite territory. During all of King Saul’s reign, the ark remained near the border in a private Israelite household at Kiryat Yearim. (See my blog post Pedudei & 1 Kings: Is the Ark an Idol?)

Then David and all the troops that were with him got up and went … to bring up from there the ark of God … And they mounted the ark of God on a new cart. (2 Samuel 6:2-3)

And David and the whole house of Israel were dancing before God with all their might, with lyres and with lutes and with drums and with castanets and with cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)

In other words, they were acting like the band of ecstatics that Saul had joined on his way to become king.

19th-century engraving featuring a sedate David with robes instead of eifod

The cart tips, and the attendant walking beside it lays a hand on the ark to steady it. He dies instantly.

And David was afraid of God that day, and he said: “How can the ark of God come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)

King David leaves the ark at a nearby house. But three months later he is told that the household has prospered because of the ark. David returns and escorts the ark the rest of the way to the City of David. Once again he behaves like an ecstatic overcome by the spirit of God, “whirling with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14). This time he wears a priest’s linen tabard (eifod).2 King David is deliberately combining a priest’s garment with ecstatic dancing.

And they brought the ark of God, and they set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it. And David brought up rising-offerings and wholeness-offerings in front of God. And David finished bringing up the rising-offering and the wholeness-offering, and he blessed the people in the name of God of Armies. Then he distributed to all the people, to all the multitude of Israel, to every man and woman, one round loaf of break, and one pan cake, and one raisin cake. And all the people left, each to his house. (2 Samuel 6:17-19)

Burning the animals offered to God is a priest’s job. So is blessing the people in the name of God; the high priest Aaron blesses the people in the inauguration in this week’s Torah portion.3

When David first fled from Saul, the priest Ahimelekh gave him and his men some of the priests’ bread.4 But King David has more resources than a priest, and distributes largesse like a king.

Thus the crowd at the ceremony in the City of David sees David as an ecstatic and a priest as well as a king. Secular power and the religious power of priest and prophet are consolidated in one person.

It is understandable that David wanted to cement his position as king by becoming a religious authority as well. But in today’s heterogeneous world, that kind of consolidation is dangerous.

The idea of “a wall of separation between church and state”5 has been promoted since the 17th century in northern Europe and America as a means to ensure religious freedom. All citizens must obey the laws of the government, but the rules of a particular religion must not become the law of any government.

This hands-off approach would have been unthinkable in the Ancient Near East, where every city and country had its reigning deity. And according to the Hebrew Bible, religion was inseparable from government in Israelite kingdoms. Many of God’s laws concerned relations between individuals. Citizens were defined by their inherited religion, and even resident aliens were required to refrain from work on Shabbat.6 But they were not required to make offerings on Israelite holy days.7

Later in the Hebrew Bible, kings sometimes keep tame prophets to say that God supports the government’s position. But God makes other prophets speak out against the policies of kings.

I am an American and a Jew, and I worry about recent calls for making some of the rules of conservative Christian religions (such as those on abortion) the law of the land. When a government and a particular religion are consolidated in the modern world (as in Iran and Saudi Arabia), the result is usually the oppression of minorities and dissenters.

May we all avoid taking King David’s path.

  1. Later in the bible God wants every hill-shrine (bamah, בָּמָה) destroyed (cf. 1 Kings 13:2, 2 Kings 17:9-11, 2 Kings 23:8-20, and Ezekiel 6:1-6). But these shrines pass without comment in the two books of Samuel.
  2. But he apparently omits the linen breeches priests must wear; one of his wives complains later about how he exposed himself (2 Samuel 6:20-22). See my blog post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: a Dangerous Spirit.
  3. Leviticus 9:22.
  4. 1 Samuel 21:4-7.
  5. Thomas Jefferson, 1902, on the First Amendment to the United States constitution.
  6. Exodus 20:10, 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:14.
  7. Numbers 9:14.

Pesach: Four Questions

Question: Why do Jews celebrate Passover?

Answer: To teach children the story of the exodus from Egypt.

This answer is in both the Torah and the Talmud, along with the need for adults to recall the story of liberation in an unforgettable way.

Two rituals in Exodus

Passover/Pesach begins this Wednesday at sunset. Jews around the world will gather at dinner tables and perform an elaborate ritual that is quite different from the two observances required in the book of Exodus.

In the book of Exodus, God orders the Israelites to gather in their houses for dinner on the 14th of the month of Nisan, which begins at sunset. That night, God will afflict Egypt with the last of the ten plagues: death of the firstborn. Each Israelite household must slaughter a year-old male lamb or goat; smaller households should combine and share one.

Painting the Blood, History Bible, Paris, c. 1390

And they must take some of the blood, and they must put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they will be. And they must eat the meat on this night, roasted in fire, and matzot on bitter herbs they must eat. You must not eat it raw, or cooked by boiling in water, but rather roasted in fire, its head on its lower legs and on its entrails. And you must not leave any for yourselves until morning; and [any] leavings from it in the morning you must burn in the fire. And thus you must eat it: your hips girded, your sandals on, and your staffs in your hand. And you must eat it in haste. It is a pesach for God. (Exodus/Shemot 12:7-11)

matzot (מַצּוֹת) = plural of matzah (מַצָּה) = unleavened bread; dry flatbread baked quickly to avoid sourdough action.

pesach (פֶּסַח) = “Passover” offering. (From the verb pasach, פָּסַח = hop (in 1 Kings 18:21); protect (in Isaiah 31:5); skip over, spare (in Exodus 12:23).)

Presumably the Israelites were enacting this ritual on the first night of Passover when Exodus was written down.  As God’s instructions continue, the ritual about daubing blood and eating a whole lamb standing up is followed by seven days of eating matzot:

Seven days you must eat matzot; indeed, on the first day you must remove the leaven that is in your houses, since any soul eating leaven must be cut off from Israel from the first day through the seventh day. (Exodus 12:14-15)

Pilgrimage festivals ceased after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. But the seven days without leaven is still a widespread Jewish observance during the week of Passover.

The Seder Table, Ukrainian print from Lubok, 19th century

However, painting your door frame with blood, eating a whole lamb including the head and entrails, and/or eating standing up with a staff in hand are rare today. Instead, on the evening of Nissan 14 (and sometimes on subsequent evenings during the week of Passover), Jews sit around the dinner table going through a Haggadah (הַגָּדָה = telling), a guide to saying blessings, singing songs, telling traditional stories, doing show-and-tell rituals, and eating ritual foods (as well as dinner). The event is called a seder (סֵדֶר= order, arrangement) because all these ritual acts are done in a prescribed order.

The reason for doing this is not only to remind ourselves of the story about God bringing us out of slavery in Egypt, but to teach it to our children.

Children in the Torah

The section of the Haggadah called “The Four Sons” or “The Four Children” paraphrases questions and answers in the Torah, imagining a different type of child corresponding to each answer.1 Three of the four biblical instructions on what to tell children are given in Exodus on the eve of the final plague and the liberation from Egypt:

When a child asks why we paint blood on our doorframes every year on Nissan 14, say:

“It is a pesach slaughter-sacrifice for God, who pasach over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when [God] afflicted the Egyptians, but saved our households.” (Exodus 12:26)

When everyone has to eat matzot instead of leavened bread for a week, say:

“On account of what God did for me, when I went out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)

When a firstborn son is ransomed in a ritual at the beginning of Passover, say:

“With a strong hand God brought us out from Egypt, from the house of slavery …” (Exodus 13:14)

The first of the Four Children in the Haggadah is based on the book of Deuteronomy, when Moses posits a son who asks about all the rules God has given. What Moses (unlike the Haggadah)2 tells you to answer begins:

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out …” (Deuteronomy 6:20)

But the biblical questions and answers are not enough. Before the Four Children section, the Haggadah makes sure children are engaged with a section called “The Four Questions”.

The Four Questions in the Talmud

Most of the traditional Haggadah3 is described in the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim, including the Four Questions, which appear in the older part of the tractate, the mishnah.4  The mishnah dates to the early third century C.E. and records what the Israelites in Babylonia were already practicing; therefore the Four Questions, like the Four Sons, has been an important part of the Passover ritual for about 2,000 years.

And for about 2,000 years, the purpose of the Four Questions has been to make the children at the seder pay attention.

Asking the Four Questions, German Haggadah c. 1460

All four questions are amplifications of the basic question:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

But the content of the four amplifications has changed somewhat since Talmudic times.

The original Four Questions (or amplifications) in the Talmud are:

On all other nights, we eat leavened bread or matzah, but on this night only matzah.

On all other nights, we eat other vegetables, but on this night only bitter herbs.

On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed, or boiled, but on this night only roasted.

On all other nights we dip [vegetables] once, but on this night we dip twice.

The mishnah continues: And according to the son’s understanding, his father instructs him.”5 (Perhaps this remark inspired the creation of the section traditionally called “The Four Sons”.)

By the 10th century C.E., the question about how the meat is cooked had been dropped from the list, and replaced with a different question:

            On all other nights we eat sitting up or reclining, but on this night only reclining.

Reclining instead of sitting up was already a requirement by the time the mishnah of Pesachim was written.6 The Talmudic rabbis cited in the gemara (the part of a Talmud tractate written during the 3rd through 5th centuries C.E. as commentary on the mishnah) argued about the technicalities of reclining. They agreed that:

Lying on one’s back is not called reclining. Reclining to the right is not called reclining, as free men do not recline in this manner. People prefer to recline on their left and use their right hand to eat, whereas they find it more difficult to eat the other way. (Pesachim 108a)

After some argument, they also agreed that reclining was necessary not only while eating matzah, but also while drinking each of the four cups of wine, since only free and independent people got to recline while drinking—the opposite of “We were slaves” in the retelling of Exodus. But nobody had to recline while eating the bitter herbs.

When the requirement about reclining replaced the method of cooking meat in the Four Questions, the order of the questions also changed.6 During the last 1,000 years, the most common order has been:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

  1. … but on this night we dip them twice.
  2. … but on this night only matzah.
  3. … but on this night only bitter herbs.
  4. … but on this night only reclining.

Today, after we pour the second cup of wine and come to the page in the Haggadah with the Four Questions, all the questions are sung by the youngest person at the table who can manage it. Some children relish the job; others complain. But someone has to do it.

And if even his wife is not capable of asking or if he has no wife, he asks himself. And even if two Torah scholars who know the halakhot of Passover are sitting together and there is no one else present to pose the questions, they ask each other. (Pesachim 116a)

The Talmud offers additional ways to prompt children to ask about the unusual things they see in the dining room. Following Rabbi Akiva, Pesachim recommends giving the children roasted grains and nuts, “so that they will not sleep and also so they will ask the four questions at night.” (Pesachim 109a)

Another technique was to grab the matzot and wolf them down, “so that, due to the hasty consumption of the meal, they will not sleep and they will inquire into the meaning of this unusual practice.” (Pesachim 109a)

One prompt in the Talmud is to actually remove the dinner table from the room before the main meal!

Why does one remove the table? The school of Rabbi Yannai says: So that the children will notice that something is unusual and they will ask: Why is this night different from all other nights? The Gemara relates: Abaye was sitting before Rabba when he was still a child. He saw that they were removing the table from before him, and he said to those removing it: We have not yet eaten, and you are taking the table away from us? Rabba said to him: You have exempted us from reciting the questions of: Why is this night different [ma nishtana], as you have already asked what is special about the seder night. (Pesachim 115b)

Another rabbi quoted in Pesachim, Rab Shimi bar Ashi, explained:

Matza must be placed before each and every participant at the seder. Each participant in a seder would recline on a couch at his own personal table. Likewise, bitter herbs must be placed before each and every participant, and ḥaroset must be placed before each and every participant. And during the seder, before the meal, one shall remove the table only from before the one reciting the Haggadah. The other tables, which correspond to the seder plates used nowadays, are left in their place. (Pesachim 115b)

I have never been to a Passover seder in which each person reclines on a couch at a separate table, as at an ancient Greek symposium. And since we are all sitting at one big table (leaning to the left uncomfortably at the appropriate times), I have never seen the table removed.

But I have witnessed other devices to keep children—and even adults—awake and asking questions. If you were leading a seder, what would you do?

  1. See my post Pesach: Changing Four Sons.
  2. The reply to the first son (or child) in the Haggadah is to summarize only the rabbinic rulings (halakhah) about Passover, up to the ban on eating anything after the afikomen, the final piece of matzah.
  3. Modern Jews have added new ritual elements to the seder, and therefore new pages of text and songs in the Haggadah, while retaining all the important elements of the traditional Haggadah that is still used by more orthodox Jews.
  4. Pesachim 116a. (All translations from tractate Pesachim in this post are from The William Davidson Talmud on The mishnah in each tractate of the Talmud is the oral law collected by Yehudah HaNasi at the beginning of the third century CE.  Later rabbinic commentary on the mishnah, the gemara, was added over the next few centuries.
  5. Pesachim 116a.
  6. Pesachim 108a. The question about reclining is added to the Four Questions in the writings of both Saadiah Gaon  (10th-century rabbi Saadiah ben Yosef Gaon) and Rambam (12th-century philosopher Moshe ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides).
  7. This is the order of the four questions according to Saadiah Gaon, Rambam, and the first extant printed haggadah (Soncino, 1485).

Tzav & Jeremiah: Smoke vs. Altruism

(Last week’s Torah portion was actually Vayikra, the first portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week I am back on sync with the calendar of Torah readings.)

What gives God pleasure?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and its haftarah, the accompanying reading from the Prophets (Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23) give two different answers. In Leviticus, God is infuriated when any Israelites violates one of God’s many rules, even inadvertently; but smoke from a burning sacrifice improves God’s mood. In Jeremiah, God is bitter and destructive because the Israelites abandoned God and worshipped other gods; and smoke does nothing to improve God’s mood. 

Pleasure in smoke

The first five books of the bible are full of people making animal sacrifices to God. The first humans in the Torah to worship God with burned offerings are Cain and Abel.1 Noah loads some extra animals on the ark, and when he burns them after the flood has receded, God’s attitude toward humankind improves.2

Noah’s Sacrifice, by James Tissot, circa 1900

Throughout Genesis and Exodus, individual men continue to thank and worship God by building altars and burning animals. The first two portions in the book of Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, give God’s instructions for making animal and grain offerings as part of the new cult that relies on priests.

For any type of offering, Leviticus explains, the donor who brings the animal to the altar leans a hand on its head before slaughtering it,3 thus identifying the animal as his gift to God and making sure God gives him the credit. For example, in the Torah portion Tzav, a ram is burned during the ceremony in which Moses consecrates the first priests, Aaron and his four sons.

Then [Moses] brought close the ram of the olah, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram. And he slaughtered it, and Moses sprinkled the blood on the altar all around. (Leviticus 8:18-19)

olah (עֺלָה) = offering in which the animal is completely burned. (From the root verb alah, עָלָה = rise up.)

After the altar is splashed with blood, Moses butchers the animal, and all the pieces are roasted on the fire of the altar.

When an offering is made to atone for transgressing one of God’s laws, even unintentionally, a priest removes all the fatty parts of the animal and burns them up into smoke; then he and other male priests may eat the remaining meat. The smell of the smoke soothes God’s temper and inclines God toward forgiveness. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.) When an offering is made to thank God for well-being, the donor and his guests also get to eat some of the meat, but the fatty parts are still reserved to be burned up into smoke for God.

Humans get two benefits from an offering that is not an olah: they eat high-protein food, and God is pleased or appeased. But other offerings require that the entire animal is burned up into smoke for God. During the consecration of priests in Tzav,

… Moses turned the whole ram into smoke at the altar; it was an olah, for a soothing scent; it was a fire-offering for God, as God had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:21)

An olah must be offered not only on special occasions such as a consecration or a holiday, but also every day, so there is always something smoldering on the altar.

The smoke from the burning animal rises up to the sky, where God normally lives. (Hebrew uses the same word, shamayim, שָׁמַיִם, for both “sky” and “heavens”.) Then God enjoys the “soothing scent” of the smoke, and relaxes. The God-character in the Torah is hot-tempered, and needs a lot of soothing. Even part of the daily grain-offering is mixed with oil and frankincense and burned, so that its smoke will please God.4

Against burning animals

Yet the haftarah reading from the book of Jeremiah declares that the directions for animal offerings are useless.

Thus said God of Armies, God of Israel: “Add your olot onto your slaughter-sacrifice and eat the meat! Because I did not speak with your forefathers, nor command them at the time I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning matters of olah and slaughter. Rather, with this word if commanded them, saying: Heed my voice, and I will be your god, and you—you will be my people. And you must walk the entire path that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

olot (עֺלוֹת) = plural of olah; offerings in which the animal is completely burned up into smoke.

Some commentators have explained Jeremiah’s outburst as sarcasm. Others have written that Jeremiah meant the wicked were assuming they could get away with their transgressions by making the appropriate guilt-offerings.5

I think Jeremiah is challenging the whole idea that the way to keep God happy is to keep making sacrifices and providing smoke for God to smell. In the chapter before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah quotes God as saying:

“Your olot are not acceptable, and your slaughter-sacrifices do not please me.” (Jeremiah 6:20)

Pleasure in altruism

Then what does give God pleasure in the book of Jeremiah?

Shortly before this week’s haftarah begins, God says:

“For if you really make your way and your acts good; if you really do justice between a man and his fellow, if you do not oppress an immigrant, orphan, or widow, and you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, and you do not go after other gods—to your own harm; then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your forefathers forever until forever.” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

In other words, the only way to please God is to be fair, to help the needy, and to avoid other gods.

The end of this week’s haftarah is the following poem:

Thus said God:

            “May the wise not boast of their wisdom,

            And may the powerful not boast of their power.

            May the wealthy not boast of their wealth.

            Rather, in this may the boasting boast:

            Understanding and knowing me.

            Because I, God, do kindness,

            Justice, and altruism in the land.

            Because in these I take pleasure,”

Declared God. (Jeremiah 9:22)

Every year I approach the portions Vayikra and Tzav with dread; they are particularly unpleasant reading for someone like me who does not eat mammals and does not want to see or imagine their cut-up corpses. Nor do I like the idea of a God who normally has a hair-trigger temper, but calms right down under the influence of smoke from sacrifices.

As I write this I am sipping a cup of cocoa, because the taste of chocolate calms me down. But I disdain a concept of God that assigns the deity that much human frailty.

The God in Jeremiah is not as temperamental as the one in Leviticus. Yet this God is fixated on destroying Judah and Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for both serving other gods, and persisting in doing evil to other human beings. Only a thorough change in the people’s behavior will satisfy God. Only then will God let them return in peace to their ancestral land.

What would it take to please God—or to occupy our world in peace—today?

  1. Genesis 4:3-4.
  2. Genesis 8:20-21.
  3. The Hebrew in Vayikra and Tzav is veshachat (וְשָׁחַט) = and he will slaughter, with “he” referring to the one who leans a hand on the animal’s head.
  4. Leviticus 6:8.
  5. For example, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E.: “When the prophet spoke about G’d not commanding us to bring animal sacrifices he meant that the animal sacrifices were not meant to be in lieu of penitence and proper conduct on our part. This is what Samuel had already said many hundreds of years previously to King Saul (Samuel I 15,22) “heeding My commands is much preferable than to offer Me good meat-offerings.” (Translation of Rabbeinu Bachya on Leviticus 7:38 by

Pekudei & 1 Kings: Is the Ark an Idol?

The ark and the curtain in front of it are the last two things Moses puts into the new Tent of Meeting in this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38). Then the portable sanctuary that will be God’s new dwelling place is complete.

Then Moses finished the work. And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place. And Moses was not able to enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud rested on it and the kavod of God filled the Dwelling Place.  (Exodus/Shemot 40:33-35)

kavod (כָּבוֹד) = weight, magnificence, honor, glory.

Thus all the Israelites who made things for the portable sanctuary, from the golden ark to the woven walls, did it right. God approved, and manifested inside.

The last thing King Solomon puts into the new permanent temple for God in this week’s haftarah (the reading from the Prophets that accompanies the Torah portion) is the ark. Then the first permanent temple for God in Jerusalem is complete.

Glory fills Solomon’s
temple, artist unknown

And it was when the priests went out of the holy place, and the cloud filled the house of God. And the priests were not able to stand and serve in the presence of the cloud, because the kavod of God filled the house of God. (1 Kings 8:10-11)

Thus all the people who built and furnished the temple for King Solomonalso did it right; God approved, and manifested inside.

In both the tent and the temple, the ark is brought into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber in back. In both Exodus and 1 Kings, the ark is a box or chest with a lid and four feet. In both stories, it is carried by means of two poles that run through the rings attached to its feet. And in both stories, the ark contains the two stone tablets Moses brought down from his second forty-day stint on Mount Sinai.

Yet the two stories do not seem to be talking about the same ark.

The ark in Exodus

The master artist Betzaleil makes the lid of the ark in last week’s Torah portion in the book of Exodus, Vayakheil:

Then he made a kaporet of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And he made two keruvim of gold; he made them hammered out from the two ends of the kaporet. One keruv out of this end and one keruv out of that end; from the kaporet he made the keruvim, from its two ends. And the keruvim were spreading wings above, screening off [the area] over the kaporet with their wings. And they faced each other, and the faces of the keruvim were toward the kaporet.(Exodus 37:6-9)

kaporet (כַּפֺּרֶת) = the lid of the ark in Exodus and Numbers; the lid of the ark as the seat of reconciliation or atonement with God in Leviticus. (From the root verb kafar, כָּפַר = covered; atoned, made amends.)1

keruvim (כְּרוּבִים) = plural of  kervuv (כְּרוּב) = “cherub” in English; a hybrid supernatural creature with wings and a human face. (Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, keruvim are guardians, steeds, or part of God’s heavenly entourage.)2

Moses and Aaron Bowing Before
the Ark, by James Tissot, ca. 1900

The bodies of the gold keruvim in Exodus are never described. Since each keruv sculpture has only one face, which gazes at the lid of the ark, it represents a different sort of hybrid creature from those in Ezekiel’s visions. The book of Ezekiel describes a keruv as having four faces, four wings with human hands under them, a single leg like a calf’s hoof, and eyes covering its whole body.3

The two gold keruvim on the ark in Exodus face one another, but they are looking down at the center of the lid. They might be guarding the stone tablets inside, or they might be guarding the empty space above the lid and below their wings. Earlier in the book of Exodus, God tells Moses:

And I will meet with you there and I will speak with you from above the lid, from between the two  keruvim (Exodus 25:22)

That means the gold keruvim in Exodus are not idols. In the Ancient Near East, an idol was a sculpture of a god that the god sometimes entered and inhabited. At those times, worshiping the idol was the same as worshiping the god.

But Exodus is careful to explain that God will not enter the ark or the keruvim sculptures on top of it; God will only manifest in the empty space between kaporet and the wings of the keruvim.

The ark and its lid are only two and a half cubits long—just under four feet (just over a meter)—so the empty space for God is not large. According to Exodus, God manifests there as a voice, but according to Leviticus 16:2, God appears there as a cloud.

The two small keruvim that Betzaleil hammers out of the extra gold on the ends of the lid of the ark are not mentioned again anywhere in the Hebrew Bible except once in the book of Numbers:

And when Moses came to the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the kaporet that was on the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two keruvim; thus [God] spoke to him. (Numbers/Bemidbar 7:89)

Here, too, the Torah clarifies that neither the keruvim nor the kaporet nor the ark are idols.

The ark in 1 Kings

Many generations pass before David creates the first kingdom of Israel, and his son Solomon builds the first permanent temple for God.  By the time King Solomon brings the ark into his new temple, there do not appear to be any keruvim on its lid. The first book of Kings reports the two large statues of keruvim in the Holy of Holies, and small keruvim decorations carved into the walls of the rest of the temple, but no keruvim on the ark.

Solomon has two colossal wood statues of keruvim brought into the Holy of Holies before the ark is carried in. Each keruv is ten cubits, about 15 feet (four and a half meters) tall, with a ten-cubit span from wingtip to wingtip.4

Then he placed the keruvim inside the House, in the innermost [chamber]. And the wings of the keruvim spread out so the wing of one keruv touched the wall, and the wing of the second keruv was touching the second wall, and in the middle of the chamber their wings touched. And he overlaid the keruvim with gold. (1 Kings 6:27-28)

Meanwhile the ark remains in King David’s tent of meeting, in another part of town, until the rest of the temple and its furnishings are completed.

That was when Solomon assembled the elders of Israel—all the heads of the tribes, chiefs of the fathers of the Children of Israel—before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the Ark of the Covenant from the City of David … And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests lifted the ark. (1 Kings 5:1-3)

Solomon Dedicates the Temple,
by James Tissot, 1902

King Solomon leads the sacrifice of livestock on the altar outside the new temple.

Then the priests brought the Ark of the Covenant of God into its place, into the back chamber of the house, to the Holy of Holies, to underneath the wings of the keruvim. For [each of] the keruvim was spreading a pair of wings toward the place of the ark, so the keruvim screened off the ark and its poles from above. (1 Kings 8:6-7)

Here the empty space reserved for God is larger than in Exodus, since the gap between the lid of the ark and the wings of the colossal statues of keruvim is about 11 feet (three and a half meters). Yet the Hebrew Bible does not mention God speaking from this space. Nor does a cloud appear there after God’s inaugural cloud of kavod has faded.

The contents of the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s temple seem to be merely symbolic. There is no mention of God manifesting in the empty space between the wings of the keruvim and the ark. Neither a statue nor the ark becomes an idol that God inhabits. According to one Talmudic source, ordinary Israelites can see the ark and the keruvim without any harmful consequences.5

Perhaps 1 Kings emphasizes that God does not inhabit the ark inside the new temple when it says:There was nothing in the ark but the two stone tablets that Moses set down there at Chorev [a.k.a. Sinai] which God cut … (1 Kings 8:9)

The ark as an idol

Exodus and 1 Kings reflect two different traditions about the relationship of the ark to its guardian keruvim. Current scholarship suggests both books were written in the 6th century B.C.E., and the descriptions of the Tent of Meeting in Exodus were modeled on the descriptions of Solomon’s temple, with adjustments to make the tent-sanctuary smaller and more portable. The descriptions of the ark in Exodus through Numbers are also more awe-inspiring than the bare mention of the ark in 1 Kings.

Both descriptions of the ark and the pair of keruvim make it clear that these furnishings are not idols. Yet other stories in the Hebrew Bible do treat the ark like an idol inhabited by God.

In the book of Joshua the priests carry the ark across the Jordan River, as the Levites had carried the ark (always covered from view by three layers of fabric)6 from Mount Sinai to the eastern bank of the Jordan. But then the priests carry it in a military parade around the walls of Jericho until God destroys the city.7

After the Israelites are unexpectedly defeated in a battle later in the book of Joshua, the ark apparently sits on the ground out in the open, rather than inside the tent-sanctuary:

And he fell on his face on the ground in front of the ark of God until evening, he and the elders of Israel, and they put dust on their heads. (Joshua 7:6)

In the first book of Samuel the ark is inside a sanctuary again: the temple at Shiloh, which has solid walls and doors, but a tent roof. However, the sons of the priest Eli take the ark out of the temple and onto the battlefield, where it is captured by the Philistines. In Philistine territory, the ark initiates two plagues and smashes an idol of the Philistine god Dagon.8  The God of Israel is working magic through the ark, which functions as an idol.

Ark Sent Away by the Philistines,
by James Tissot, 1902

The Philistines send the ark back into Israelite territory, where its magic power kills at least 70 Israelite men who look inside. The ark is removed to a private house where the owner’s son is consecrated as a priest to guard it.9

This version of the ark can be safely seen from outside, but must not be opened—or touched, except by its attached carrying poles. When King David sets out to retrieve the ark and transport it to Jerusalem, its two current priests load it on a cart. Partway to Jerusalem the oxen pulling it stumble, and the priest who touches the ark to steady it dies instantly.

And David was afraid of God that day, and he said: “How could I bring the ark of God to myself!” (2 Samuel 6:9)

Although it is possible to interpret this verse as indicating David’s fear of a remote God who chooses to kill anyone who touches the ark, it makes more sense if David conflates God and the ark, treating the ark as an idol God is inhabiting. Fear of God and fear of the ark are the same thing.

Three months later King David succeeds in bringing the ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem, and installs it in the new tent-sanctuary he has set up there for God.10 This is the ark that King Solomon brings into the Holy of Holies in his new temple, and positions under the wings of two new statues of keruvim. At that point the ark is no longer an idol, but merely a sacred object, the most sacred object in the temple.

Which version of the ark appeals to you the most:

The holy work of art in Exodus and Numbers, which only a priest is allowed to see?

The idol that travels around naked in Joshua and the two books of Samuel, zapping people right and left?

Or the piece of furniture in 1 Kings, which must be treated as sacred because it contains the two stone tablets, the way an ark in a synagogue today is treated with respect because it contains the Torah scroll?

  1. The only occurrence of the term kaporet  in the bible outside Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is when 1 Chronicles, written about 200 years later, says King David gave his son Solomon plans for the temple including “the shrine of the kaporet” (1 Chronicles 28:11). This is not a locution used in Exodus through Numbers.
  2. Keruvim are definitely guardians in Genesis 3:24 and Ezekiel 28:14-16. A keruv is a steed for God in 2 Samuel 22:11, Ezekiel 9:3, Psalm 18:11, and 1 Chron. 28:18. Keruvim are part of God’s large supernatural entourage in Ezekiel 1:5-14, 10:1-20, and 11:22.
  3. Ezekiel 10:1-20 and 1:5-14.
  4. 1 Kings 6:23-26.
  5. Talmud Bavli, Yoma 54a.
  6. See my post: Bemidbar: Don’t Look!
  7. Joshua 3:3-4:18, 6:4-13.
  8. 1 Samuel 4:3-6:12.
  9. 1 Samuel 6:19-7:1.
  10. 2 Samuel 6:13-17.